BooksOfTheMoon

The Calcutta Chromosome

By Amitav Ghosh

Rating: 3 stars

This alt history re-examines the discovery of how malaria is carried and transmitted. It was discovered by Dr Ronald Ross in the 1890s, but this book posits the question of what he he didn’t do it on his own, but was prompted in that direction, by some unknown force?

In the near-ish future, Antar, a worker for the International Water Council, discovers the damaged ID card of a former colleague who was obsessed with Ross and his work, but who disappeared and starts investigating. We spend time with said colleague (L. Murugan), in long flashbacks, as well as some of the people Murugan encounters in that time.

There’s a fair amount of exposition in the book, coming mostly from Murugan, and yet, despite that, it still manages to be confusing and open-ended. It’s very well-written and easy to read, but I had trouble following the layers of the mystery, and I don’t think the end really pulled it together at all. Murugan is eccentric, but quite a likeable character as he powers around Calcutta, scattering people in his wake, trying to solve the mystery.

To be honest, I’m not sure that the top level of the nested structure, with Antar in the “present” added much to the story. I found the lack of closure frustrating, but was kept going all the way through it. Not sure I’d read it again though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848544154
Publisher: John Murray
Year of publication: 2011

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

Ned Henry is suffering from time lag from too many drops into the past too quickly. Taking pity on him, his supervisor offers him a couple of weeks in the nineteenth century, just as long as he does one simple task first. It’s just a shame that Ned’s too time-lagged to remember what that was. And if he doesn’t, the whole of history could unravel.

I’m really glad I read Doomsday Book before I read this. Not because it needs it – there’s almost no connection between the two books other than the setting and the character of Mr Dunworthy – but because if I’d read them the other way around, I would probably get shellshock at the drastically different tones the two books have. The former is a serious, quite dark at times, tome about survival and plague, while this is a jaunty romantic comedy. And while, the former was good, this is good and enjoyable to read too.

Three Men in a Boat is explicitly referenced, as Ned spends time in a boat on the Thames (yes, with a dog) but it reminded me more of P. G. Wodehouse‘s farces. There’s definitely something of the Awful Aunt about Lady Schrapnell and the star-crossed lovers really need Jeeves to sort them out.

Detective fiction of the era (Christie, Sayers etc) are referenced as well, and the trope of the first crime actually turning out to be the second crime. This is something that resonates at the end, when resident boffin TJ drops something that could change how we view the whole set of what’s just happened. It’s a nice little coda to the story, to suggest that the universe is not only weirder than we think, but weirder than we can believe.

Once I got past the awful Lady Schrapnell and Ned was safely in the Victorian era, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was fairly gentle, and although the stakes were theoretically quite high, it never felt like history was in any real danger – and this isn’t a bad thing, it let me enjoy Ned and Verity’s adventures in the Victorian era, complete with eccentric professor, ex-colonel, domineering matriarch, scatterbrained friend and highly competent butlers. A rocking great read that never felt nearly long as its actual 500+ pages.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575113121
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2013

Gideon the Ninth

By Tamsyn Muir

Rating: 4 stars

There’s been some positive buzz around this book on social media which intrigued me, but I was wary that it was the first part of a trilogy, until someone I trust said that it was (mostly) readable as a standalone. I’m glad I did pick it up, as it’s very enjoyable. I especially like the narrative voice of the protagonist, Gideon. She’s fairly young at just eighteen, and something of this immaturity comes across in her voice, in a good way (I laughed much more than I should have done at the “that’s what she said” jokes).

Gideon is an indentured servant of the Ninth House – owing them for her upbringing. She’s been trained as a swordswoman, and when the head of the house, the necromancer Harrowhark, is called to service by the Emperor, she reluctantly follows Harrow as her cavalier. They find themselves along with pairs from the other Houses in a race to unlock the secret of immortality.

There’s something a little And Then There Were None about the way that the groups are taken to an isolated location with a mystery to be unlocked in a race against time, which I enjoyed quite a lot. The necromancer/cavalier pairs from the other houses were distinctive and interesting, from the jovial married couple of the Fifth House to the “terrible teens” of the Fourth to the creepy, sanctimonious Eighth. Maybe the military Second House didn’t get much beyond being uptight military types, but they were probably the exception.

I loved the relationship between Gideon and Harrow, how these two girls who have known and hated each other their entire lives have to start to rely on each other to survive the challenges they’re thrown and how that eventually turns into trust. It’s an old trope, but carried off with aplomb.

The world is classic science fantasy. Although there’s a thin veneer of SF in the form of space travel and genetics, most of the action involves magic and the fights are all sword fights. I’ll handwave it away via Clarke’s Third Law though. There’s enough worldbuilding to keep us interested without drowning us in exposition (although there are more hints in the glossary at the end).

Spoiler
From the moment we find out what Ianthe had to do to achieve Lyctor-hood, we sense that Gideon’s days are numbered. This is a shame, but what a way to go out. There’s scope for her to come back in some form (they never found the body!) and there’s still a number of mysteries around her. As I said above, I enjoyed her narrative voice a lot. I’ll miss her if she’s gone permanently. I mean, I’ll read a book about Harrow, but I’ll be thinking about Gideon.

The epilogue sets up the next book and I’ll be intrigued to see where it goes – it seems to be getting ready to widen the scope an awful lot, from a single isolated mansion to the whole galaxy. I can’t wait to see where the story goes.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250313188
Year of publication: 2020

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

By Natasha Pulley

Rating: 4 stars

In a Victorian London much like our own, Thaniel Steepleton comes home one day to find someone has broken into his home and left a gift for him – a pocket watch. It’s only when that pocket watch saves his life after an explosion at Scotland Yard some months later that Thaniel goes searching for the watchmaker, Japanese immigrant Keita Mori. Around the same time, Grace Carrow is trying to prove the existence of the ether, while simultaneously trying to avoid being married off by her parents. These three lives eventually intertwine in unexpected and life-changing ways.

I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t a plot-driven book. For most of its length, it’s slow and fairly gentle. Spending time mostly with Thaniel and Mori, with Grace not getting nearly as much airtime as she deserves. It speeds up towards the end, in a way that was quite confusing (albeit deliberately so) and there’s a relationship that completely blind-sided me. Looking back, I can see some subtle signs of it building up, but it turns out that if I’ve not had it explicitly signposted, certain sorts of relationship just completely pass me by.

There was a strong focus on Japanese characters (the author spent some time there, as an academic) and the book delicately draws the distinctions between the immigrants and the locals, without ever resorting to crude bigotry from its characters. (Subtle bigotry, on the other hand…) It also shows the balance that immigrants have to strike when they move to a new country between their history and traditions and blending in with their new home and where different people draw that line.

As you would expect, clocks, clockwork and time play a large role. Mori is a genius with clockwork, with his masterpiece being his somewhat adorable mechanical octopus, Katsu (who has a thing for stealing socks). Timing of events, and probability of others are important, and not just in relation to the bomb that nearly kills Thaniel near the start of the book.

So a charming novel, with a good heart, not to mention a very interesting female scientist, who’s bolshy and flawed. I also now totally want a mechanical octopus (even if I’d have to buy a lock for my sock drawer).

Spoiler
I totally shipped Thaniel and Grace, even though their marriage was literally one of convenience, and it was probably that which blindsided me to Thaniel’s blossoming relationship with Mori.

Book details

ISBN: 9781408854310
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Year of publication: 2016

The Best of All Possible Worlds

By Karen Lord

Rating: 5 stars

This is a remarkably sweet and uplifting book for a story that starts with genocide. The planet of Sidira is destroyed, leaving only small groups of survivors. One of these groups is resettled on the planet of Cygnus Beta, a world that prides itself on welcoming all those who seek refuge. A government civil servant, Grace Delarua, is seconded to help the new settlement. When the colony decides to scour the planet looking for those with genetic heritage from their world, to help rebuild their society, Grace is assigned to travel with a group, including Dllenahkh, one of the Sidiri leaders.

There’s not a huge amount of plot to this book, it’s mostly a travelogue through various societies on Cygnus Beta, having minor adventures en route. It’s the characters that shine through. The warmth with which they’re portrayed is delightful, especially given the awful nature of the event that brought them there. The Sidiri are known as an intellectual and thoughtful people, not prone to burst of emotion (I pictured them as slightly more laid back Vulcans) and the dry wit that Dllenahkh shows, and his surprisingly tender romance with Delarua is a pleasure to read.

This also feels very much like a book for our times, showing us an example of how a society should handle those in need of refuge: with grace and open arms. In a world where more and more countries are turning their backs on their fellow peoples, we need to be reminded of the alternative. Where the host encourages those who come to them to develop and grow and become they best they can be, while those who take up that offer in turn grow into their host culture, while maintaining their own traditions.

The focus here is very much on Cygnus Beta, with only minor hints being dropped in about the wider galactic society and the four peoples (including Terrans) who make up humanity as a whole. The world-building is nicely done, and slides neatly into the story.

This isn’t a flashy novel, but it’s one that I found has worked its way into my heart without me really noticing. I cared about the characters and their relationships, which, to me, means the book is a success.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780871684
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2014

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries, #2)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 4 stars

Murderbot got its clients away from the really quite nasty GreyCris corporation on the survey world it had been guarding them on, and after its client bought it, just walked away. Now it decides that it needs to know about its past, about the event that caused it to give itself that name. Aided by a research transport vessel, it ends up taking on a small group of clients as a security consultant and finds that despite what it wants, it cares about them too much to skip out on them.

Murderbot is, despite, you know, the whole murder thing, a delightful protagonist. It’s fun and sarky and, despite its best intentions, isn’t nearly as misanthropic as it wants to be. It just wants to be left alone to watch space-Netflix all day, but instead keeps getting involved with humans it can’t bear to leave to die horribly.

While I’m still not convinced about any society that creates sentient cyborgs and then enslaves them, I think that Wells has given us enough hints that a) she doesn’t consider this to be a place anyone would want to live and b) not the whole of human space is like the bit that built Murderbot.

The research transport that Murderbot sort of befriends (ART) is a lot of fun, and you can’t help wanting to protect its clients/cover story, as they’re young, innocent and just adorable.

Final thought: Murderbot is horrified at the idea of being hugged. I would do some murdering of my own for a hug right now (stupid coronavirus).

Book details

How Long ’til Black Future Month?

By N.K. Jemisin

Rating: 4 stars

I approach every NK Jemisin story I read with trepidation that is mostly undeserved. The reputation of the Broken Earth books casts a long shadow, and to me, the author has the kind of reputation that meeting her would lead to me cowering, in the submission position, while backing away as politely as possible. This reputation, if it exists outwith my head, is undeserved, if this collection is anything to go by. Yes, it has the (deserved) anger of a black woman who has finally found a voice, but there’s joy and playfulness in there too. Stories such as L’Achimista, about a chef given a chance to prove her greatness, after a fall from grace; and The City Born Great, telling of the birth of the soul of the city of New York are beautiful and joyful.

There’s conversation within the genre, with responses to Heinlein and Le Guin and there’s dread, pain, death (and other anthropomorphic personifications) and, of course, hope.

I wish that Jemisin had provided a few words on each of the stories. I always enjoy hearing the context in a which a story was written, to help foster a deeper appreciation, but although it’s something Asimov did a lot, and did well, I’m not sure how common it is these days.

I’ve encountered a few stories before in other forms (often in audio form on Escape Pod and its siblings), but there was only one story which I skipped entirely because it was difficult enough first time round (Walking Awake, where alien Masters possess human bodies like puppets, if you’re wondering). And despite my memory, Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters is a fantastic story and a great way to round off the collection. Oh, and this story also has the most memorable metaphor in the whole book: “blue sky hard as a cop’s eyes”. Ouch.

So 4.5 stars, rounded down. A fantastic collection, with just one or two stories that just didn’t gel for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356512549
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2018

Binti: The Complete Trilogy

By Nnedi Okorafor

Rating: 3 stars

I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. It had such a positive vibe on social media, and won a number of awards, that I was excited to get this omnibus for Christmas. Unfortunately, it just didn’t grab me that much, and I can’t really figure out why. I quite enjoyed the first novella, which had a sort of almost dreamlike feel to it. The killing of everyone on the ship and Binti’s survival feel like they’re being seen from a distance or through water. This means they don’t create as much of an emotional impact as they should.

The short story (Sacred Fire) and the second novella (Home) probably left me the most cold. In the former, it’s clearer that Binti has a sort of PTSD (not unexpected, frankly) and goes out into the desert to try and deal with it. We also see some of her classmates and some friends that she makes. In the latter, Binti decides to return home to Earth to complete a ritual to achieve womanhood, and brings her friend Okwa (the Medusa who had helped kill everyone on her ship) with her, to try and cement the peace treaty between them and the Khoush, the human tribe (country? Empire? It’s never made clear) that they had been at war with. But more importantly, she has to deal with her own family and the rest of her people.

This I had real trouble with: these people are so mired in tradition and desire for home that they viewed any attempt to leave as a betrayal, and a selfish move on Binti’s part, and one that meant that no man would want to marry her. I snorted out loud at that one. I understand a love of home, but to deny someone their desire to learn seems almost perverted to me, and left me feeling very cold towards them.

The last story, Night Masquerade had the most plot to it and was probably the one I enjoyed the most. Having just discovered that she has alien DNA in her (well, more alien DNA than she thought) Binti has to use her utmost skills as a master harmoniser to bring peace between the Medusae and the Khoush before her people are trampled underfoot by their war. And also discover the secrets of her edan.

I think one of the things that irritated me about the book was that Binti was too special. She was, by the end of the first story, a genius mathematician; a master harmoniser; a Medusae ambassador; wielder of the edan. And then by the end of the whole series she’s more than that again. It just felt a little too much. And I thought the reveal of the edan while being funny was a bit of an anticlimax.

Book details

ISBN: 9780756415181
Publisher: Daw Books
Year of publication: 2019

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not really a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, nor do I think it’s a good idea to be reading a book about the end of civilisation caused by a global flu pandemic, just when we may be seeing the start of a global flu pandemic. And yet. I very much enjoyed this book: it’s beautifully written, compelling and, above all, perhaps, hopeful. I was talking with a friend when I was mulling over the book in a bookshop and the phrase that tipped me into buying it was that many (most?) post-apocalyptic stories focus on the worst of humanity; this one focuses on the best.

And it mostly does. It doesn’t gloss over the fact that awful things will happen during the collapse of civilisation and that people will use it for their own purposes, whether that’s just their own selfish desires, or a twisted ideology that rationalises their own position at the top. But our PoV character after the collapse is Kirsten, an actress in a travelling company whose motto is “Survival is insufficient” (incidentally nicked from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager), making clear to both their fellow survivors and to the audience that civilisation is about more than just warm bodies. It’s our art, our stories, our history, our desire to come together and form things greater than the sum of their parts.

The portions of the story pre-apocalypse were interesting for a different reason: they mostly followed the actor Arthur Leander, and it’s striking how everyday they are. Arthur falls in and out of love; deals with his work; and tries to manage friendships (some more successfully than others). All while unaware that his death and the end of the world are coming.

There is a conversation near the end of the book about whether it is unkind to teach children born into the new world about the old one, about all the things that there used to be, but which they will never see. I think it is extremely necessary; as a reminder of what we can be and to never stop striving. One of the characters maintains a “museum of civilisation” for, I feel, much the same sort of reason. And with the note of hope at the end, remembering the past in order to make a better future is more important than ever.

Definitely recommended (but do wash your hands first, and remember to sneeze into a tissue).

Book details

ISBN: 9781447268970
Publisher: Picador
Year of publication: 2015

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

The soldier who goes by the name of Breq is in the final stages of plotting revenge when she comes across Seivarden Vendaai, lying naked and dying in the snow. Why she stops to help him is something even she doesn’t know, but he becomes entangled in her own life and the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance.

I really rather loved this book. Breq is something more and something less than human. Her body was once human, but killed and reanimated. Her intelligence is artificial, being the last remaining component of the starship Justice of Toren, trying to make sense of and work with a single body rather than the resources of thousands of its ‘ancillaries’.

Although Breq (or Justice of Toren) is very much the hero of the piece, the book never shies away from the fact that it was a military ship involved in the invasion and subjugation of many civilisations and planets. It’s done terrible things in its time, but in some ways this is a redemption story as well, with Breq trying, in her own way, to make up for her own past actions.

Breq is also a fascinating protagonist. Being part of an AI with multiple bodies, we get a first person narrative, but from multiple points of view, which gives us both the intimacy of a first person narrator, but also the traditional omniscient narrative, as Justice of Toren is seeing all these things at the same time.

At first in the book, I felt a bit thrown off-balance and it took a while to work out why. It was because all the characters that Breq met seemed to be female. It took a while for this to sink in. If they had been male I wouldn’t have even noticed. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing – it makes me aware that despite my best efforts, I still have in-built preconceptions, and helps me to try and break through them. In fact, in the story, it’s more interesting than that. The language that Breq thinks in doesn’t make distinction between genders, and the pronoun that she uses is ‘she’ for everyone (and finds it difficult to tell the difference between genders, as the outward signs vary so much between cultures).

Come to think of it, I have no idea if Breq is male or female. She’s referred to as ‘she’ by other characters, but I, think, always in the Radch language, so it’s entirely possible that she’s actually male.

The world-building in the story is really good as well. The civilisation of the Radch, to which JoT belongs, has been expanding for a millennium and eventually met its match with an alien species, and is forced to sue for peace. The Lord of the Radch has, like the ancillaries, thousands of bodies, spread through many star systems, so can always be personally present as the ultimate form of law and justice, meaning that the ‘centre of power’ is always fairly near by, rather than being some distant Rome, and that mind across multiple bodies is played in interesting ways.

So an awful lot in there to think about and digest, but also a really fun space opera with a twist. One of the reasons that I read this book when I did is that it was published in 2013 and I get to nominate and vote in the 2014 Hugo awards. From all I heard, this might be a contender for nomination. From my point of view, it most definitely is.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502403
Publisher: Orbit UK (Little, Brown Book Group)
Year of publication: 2013

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress